Art As Activism: A Conversation With Kelela

Art As Activism: A Conversation With Kelela

Written by Kai Miller

Published 3 weeks ago

ONE WOMAN'S MISSION TO BRING FORTH HEALING

It’s a balmy September afternoon,

 

as I await the arrival of Kelela from the dressing room of a lofty Manhattan studio. She’s wrapping up a photoshoot on the floor above me, giving me ample time to trim down my long list of questions which range from Black love and Black womanhood to Donald Trump. While this will be our first time meeting, I want to be as direct as possible in cutting through the noise — who is Kelela? And what does she ultimately stand for?

Upon her arrival, Kelela greets me with a light handshake and intrinsically asks who is responsible for the 20 or so questions she reviewed with her publicist. After acknowledging them as my doing, she looks to me and says warmly, “Great questions. They’re brilliant.”

 

 

We do our job to thrive, to survive. To protect ourselves, to sit together and feel better and to heal."

Initially, I’m surprised to see that the Ethiopian beauty is only accompanied by her publicist and a close friend — not a full-on entourage of Black and brown women laced in the finest threads that I anticipated. It’s welcoming and also a convenient reminder that Kelela isn’t too far removed from her humble D.C. roots.

Before entering the room, her dreadlocks adorned with crystals announced her arrival as they clinked together like champagne flutes. After surveying the drab, dimly-lit space in which we are set to chat for an hour or so, Kelela plops down on a makeshift neon green cushion. We immediately spark up conversation in an attempt to project our voices over the looming noise from the television. But her face reads of discontent. “Can we turn this off?,” she asks before answering my questions about what she’s currently been listening to. Moments later, as I attempt to adjust the TV’s muddled levels, she looks to me and asks yet another question. “Can we do this somewhere else? This feels very closet-y.” And so we do.

Now, sitting across from each other in a corner office, encapsulated by large glass window panes, the bird’s eye view of bustling Times Square is a striking contrast to Kelela’s subdued nature. Upon entering the room, she looks to me and says: “This is where we’re supposed to sit and talk.” And she’s right. Complemented by the sun’s glare, everything about her glistens: from her almond rich skin tone and shimmering cheekbones to her glitzy hair, she embodies the glow women long for and shell out hundreds of dollars to achieve. The culmination of all these elements, however, prove to be too much for my corneas and I feel the urge to squint. But I allow the light to burn my eyes as to not miss a glimpse of the Black girl magic before me.

The occasion for our meeting is none other than to discuss her debut album, Take Me Apart, which was released this past October. Much like in the manner she speaks, well-thought out and with intention, Kelela’s music has been very fine-tuned and calculated. Her first mixtape, 2013’s Cut 4 Me, was a process that took her four years to complete and produced the infectious “Bankhead.” The follow up, 2015’s Hallucinogen, rested neatly at just under 10 tracks. And her album, a blend of her affinity for electronic music and deep-rooted connection to R&B, is the byproduct of a woman who has come into full understanding of who she is and isn’t. “I am not carefree,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “I’m just not. I experience an immense amount of joy, a crazy amount of joy through sadness and so much struggle. There’s something problematic about ‘carefree Black girl.’” Kelela’s upbringing is even more of a testament of just how careful she’s had to be throughout her life. 

Born an only child to an Ethiopian family in 1983, 

Kelela Mizanekristos’ parents immigrated to the United States during the 1970s to further their education. Both deeply involved in social justice reform, it was inherent that Kelela would develop their same passion for activism. A brief stint at American University further sparked her angst in trying to find her place in society as well as provided insight into the systems that fuel racism. “My first teacher that invited these questions and invited these discussions in this way was a woman named Celine-Marie Pascale at American University,” she explains. “And I took a white privilege and social justice class with her. And she has this whole thing about how it’s definitely not our responsibility to go about dismantling [racism]."

“Anyone who understands anti-racist work, a white person specifically, understands that it is not Black people’s responsibility, or any person of color’s responsibility, to dismantle the structures that keep white people in positions of power. We do our job to thrive, to survive. To protect ourselves, to sit together and feel better and to heal.”

After college proved to be too stifling, it was through music that Kelela would eventually find her medium. At the age of 19, Kelela began to slow dance with the idea of being a musician after she was encouraged to pursue a singing career by her then-boyfriend. Several years later, at 24, after a few stints at open mics throughout D.C.’s bustling jazz scene, Kelela once again found herself vying for her own unique space. Not quite able to find her footing in the free-flowing genre, Kelela joined a progressive metal band titled Dizzy Spells before turning her focus to electronic music and ultimately coming in tune with her own frequency. “I’m just tryna be honest about all the things that I dig in my music,” she tells me candidly. “It’s not just this over here, it’s also that over there.”

As a Black woman occupying predominantly white spaces of electronic music, it’d be easy to conflate Kelela’s love for pop-like synths to an appreciation for non-Black artists. But Kelela’s music isn’t easy to digest — it’s actually quite a hard pill swallow as she explores the often puzzling nuances of sex, love and romance. Many of her influences are household names ranging from Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock to Patrice Rushen and Donna Summer or, in her own words, “basically, all the Black people who been had machines.”

Kelela’s reverence for the lineage of entertainers before her is fittingly aligned with her expression of futurism, which is unabashedly Black and bold. “When it comes to electronic music, people think I’m referencing something very ‘other side,’” she explains. “What I’m naturally doing is trying to create this music that feels like all the things I love."

“Then, once I start to do that I see that there’s a specific way that I can be intersectional and I try to refine it and make it exactly the line that I’m trying to tread. And that, I think, attracts a lot of different types of people.”

Her live shows, which amass men and women from all walks of life, are a direct result of the intersectionality Kelela so often champions. The blend of white, black, latino, queer, straight and bisexual communities weave together what she likes to describe as a “hybridized space.” But the notion of Black joy is always present as Kelela revels in the “layer of church” which oftentimes finds its way to the front rows of her performances. “I want it to be a safe space for queer Black people, specifically Black women, the most,” she says. “So that they feel safest. It’s safe for them, it’s gon’ be safe for everybody.”

Kelela’s precautionary tone resonates deeply throughout Take Me Apart, especially on tracks like “Frontline,” “Truth or Dare” and “Enough,” in which she ethereally sings “Will your love ruin my heart?” And it’s in this moment of vulnerability that we find Kelela is strong enough to not only take on the burden of the emotions of a love lost, but also the healing required to do so. While a vast majority of her music dwells on relationships, it’s Kelela’s relationship with herself and how that translates into her artistry that is most worthy of noting.

I want it to be a safe space for queer Black people, specifically Black women the most. So, that they feel safest. It’s safe for them, it’s gon’ be safe for everybody.”

Her allegiance to herself is commendable in every way.

From how she thoughtfully articulates her words to her commanding presence, it’s clear that she’s vibrating on a level higher than most. Nearly four years prior to her debut album’s release, Kelela had already produced a handful of its songs. But she instead opted to gift fans with a mixtape, Cut 4 Me, in spite of being advised by members on her team to do otherwise. “I’m learning about myself,” she says admittedly. “How to be more of who I am through relationships with other people, which I think most people are doing. But I like to explore that in an overt way.

“When it comes to relationships, I think it requires healing. I think healing is something people are not sure know how to do. I’m not saying I know how to do it. But I know what the difference is. I know when it feels like it’s really good and I know when it’s not all good.”

Behind her blanketed voice of airy melodies, Kelela harbors a threshold for pain. But the healing she so adamantly requests of those around her is echoed throughout her latest effort. On songs like “Jupiter,” Kelela offers herself as a soundboard to “let it out” because “there’s a lot going on.” Yet, in spite of the fog of the country’s current climate, she’s still whimsically creative with her artistry.

 

“LMK,” the lead single off the project, finds the R&B siren addressing a "situationship" head on. But where she truly pushes the envelope lies in the concept of the song’s accompanying visual. Drawing heavy inspiration from Mary J. Blige as she sports several different wigs and guises, Kelela revels in her multiplicity and ultimately who she has the potential to be.

Once again, it’s her reverence for R&B powerhouses like Mary and her admonishment of trends that are a true testament of her star quality. “The reference points for that video don’t feel so trendy,” she tells me. “It doesn’t feel like what everybody is trying to say right now.

“And, for me, I felt like it was so important to hold those women up high in that way. To make that part of the canon and a classic. Like, that’s a look. Being able to identify that and say we value it again. It’s just like ‘Amen.’ That feeling for me is very important.”

I’m just trying to soundtrack your real life. I’m just trying to give you a place to feel safe in all the parts of your experience."

Uplifting Black women is ultimately the crux of her work, and admirably so. Whether it’s collaborating with the likes of Solange, honoring Mary’s legacy, dabbling in creative direction with her stylist Mischa Notcutt — or even on a micro level: pushing me to not settle for a closet-like space to conduct our interview but rather a corner office, Kelela is in fact doing “the work” in her own unconventional way.

Hours after we exchange hugs and our goodbyes, I’m reminded of this as I sit at my desk and think back on her closing remarks during our interview: “I’m just trying to soundtrack your real life. I’m just trying to give you a place to feel safe in all the parts of your experience."

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